The Country Club Dispute has been mentioned a couple of times in reader comments over the years. It’s one of those situations I’ve known about for awhile, placed in my pile of unused topics, and finally summoned enough motivation to write about today. It sounds like two snobby gentlemen with upturned noses and green blazers whacking each other with 5 irons after learning they’re dating the same debutante. That’s what comes to mind every time I spot a passing reference to the Country Club Dispute, and it never fails to bring a little chuckle to my lips, even though I’m fully of the disconnect between reality and stereotype here.
It’s the reason why Texas and New Mexico have such a seemingly haphazard border northwest of El Paso. It also accounts for the only part of Texas on the "wrong" side of the Rio Grande River.
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Look at me! Wrong-side Texas!
I’ve discussed the formation of Texas so many times (for example) that I can’t stand to do it again. Let’s just say that Texas split from México, became an independent nation, then joined the United States. Later the U.S. purchased a slice of México that includes southern areas of modern Arizona and New Mexico, called the Gadsden Purchase (map). Are you with me? The Country Club Dispute revolved around the tiny 15-mile portion of border added between New Mexico (then a Territory) and Texas as a result of the purchase.
New Mexico became a state in 1912 and brought suit against Texas in 1913, disputing the border. The case went directly to the Supreme Court because it has original jurisdiction for interstate disputes as provided in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. The Court appointed a "special master" who investigated the situation and filed a report. Ultimately this led to the Supreme Court case New Mexico v. Texas (1927).
I’ll let Justice Sanford explain.
Each State thus asserted that the true boundary line is the middle of the channel of the Rio Grande in 1850. Neither alleged that there had been any change in this line by accretions. And the only issue was as to the true location of the channel in that year… That is, broadly speaking, New Mexico contends that the river then ran on the eastern side of the valley, and Texas, that it ran mainly on the western side. The distance between the two locations midway of the disputed area is about four miles.
It’s quite visible on a terrain map.
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Notice the Franklin Mountains to the east and a slight rise in the terrain to the west. The Rio Grande has a history of sloshing between those two natural barriers which, as Justice Sanford noted, are about four miles apart. Both sides agreed that the border should follow the path of the Rio Grande as it existed in 1850. That wasn’t in dispute. The precise location of the river in 1850 was in fact the dispute.
New Mexico relied upon less precise witness evidence. The Court used what would now be considered unfortunate terminology — there’s mention of illiterate Indians and Mexicans — to make a larger point that witnesses relied upon imprecise memories of events occurring more than fifty or sixty years earlier. Texas relied upon "the Salazar-Diaz Survey of 1852, the Texas surveys of 1849 and 1860, the maps of the surveys made in 1852-1855 for the Joint Boundary commissions, and the Clark map of 1859."
The Court dismissed New Mexico’s claim. The Rio Grande separates a corner of Texas from the rest of the state to this day. There are also small slices of New Mexico placed similarly on the opposing side of the river.
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The resolution of the dispute, tracing a riverbed that no longer existed, created a modern situation overflowing with all sorts of wonderful practical exclaves. I think my favorite example is the vineyard in Canutillo, Texas "nestled between the majestic Franklin Mountains and the high plains where the Rio Grande cuts a lush green valley through the desert creating the Mesilla Valley Appellation.". Zin Valle Vineyards on Canutillo-La Union Road can be accessed only via New Mexico either from the north or the south. The same situation exists just to the east on Westside Road and several smaller lanes that emanate from it. The southernmost of the smaller lanes, Green Cove Drive, can be accessed from the outside world starting in New Mexico, driving into Texas, clipping New Mexico again, and ending in Texas (map). Lucky residents.
Why was it the Country Club Dispute, though?
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The disputed lands were referred to generally as the Country Club Area because that’s where the El Paso Country Club established itself in 1906 (its current location dates to 1922). That, in turn, increased the desirability of the land which was sold in lots. Paradoxically the Country Club’s history page does not mention its prominent role in sparking an interstate dispute and a Supreme Court case.